RONAN O'GARA: Rory, me, and a bottle of whiskey, sorting Irish rugby

At times, only a bottle of whiskey on a bar counter stood between Rory Best and myself sorting every ill there ever was in Irish rugby, writes Ronan O’Gara

The new Irish captain ticks every box — grafter, leader, the ability to overcome adversity — and then some. He’s a good man for a laugh, but he’s very passionate about his work.

Himself and Denis Leamy would be very good buddies. And when the pair of us got together, we could end up locking horns at the bar counter, trying to sort out the problems of how the Irish team could get better. And maybe there’d be a drop of whiskey firing up the debate. That’s what I love about Rory Best — hard as nails and old school, yet hyper-professional if that doesn’t come across as a contradiction.

He’s no nodding dog either. He’ll argue his point as eloquently as he needs to.

I, among others, have flagged Peter O’Mahony’s credentials for the armband in the future, but his short-term goals are rehab and getting his playing minutes back. Don’t be surprised if Best’s is a four-year appointment, right up to Japan in 2019. He’s 33 but Rory’s skill needs hinge on the ability to hit his man in pressure lineout situations. That’s only going to get better, and develop technically, with age.

There were a few interesting candidates for the captaincy, and that’s a big difference between Irish and French rugby - the number of leaders. It’s not as if it’s landed in Rory’s lap by default. The most interesting alternative was Sean O’Brien, he was right in the hunt and would have been a good choice too.

When people write and talk about the clarity of purpose Joe Schmidt has brought to the Irish squad, then Best has been one of the primary beneficiaries. He’s an example of good performing better when playing under someone who provides serious direction. Rory is a straight talker, no bullshit, and well identifies with the Schmidt model which affords absolutely no room for ambiguity or ‘what ifs’. That’s how Rory operates at his best.

It’s probably five or six years ago he was sidelined for a period with a serious AC joint problem. The medical team with Ireland estimated a six-week lay-off, whereby Rory reminded them he had a very high pain threshold. “I’ve a fair ability to take pain,” he whispered. A front-row scrummaging forward remember, with a busted AC joint, played a week later. Obviously the joint was in bits, and I suspect will never be the same again. When you are in Irish camp, the medical staff occasionally might show you scans, certainly some of the senior players, for education and understanding. It was like black and white — “this is what Rory’s AC joint looks like and this is what it is meant to be like.”

But that inspires players.


Rory, me, and a bottle of whiskey, sorting Irish rugby

Don’t be surprised if Conor O’Shea lands the Italian coaching job after Jacques Brunel. And if he does take his first international job, it will be with one eye on the Ireland job, for sure.

There’s a stage in every rugby coach’s career where he or she will mull over the pros and cons of club v international management. Judging by what Conor has done at Harlequins, how happy he was there, his next move is bound to be into the test arena.

The frenetic pace of club coaching can seem like a fast-track compared to the international model.

The on-field coaching may be shoehorned into tight time segments, but the general workload isn’t. Straight after the Six Nations, it’s a summer tour - Italy are slated to play Argentina, the US and Canada - and then onto the autumn series of games.

Certainly if you are on the daily treadmill of club coaching, burnout is a danger and international management can often be a solution to that.

Some fellas earn that route, and Conor O’Shea has earned that at this stage. But I still think he eyes on a bigger prize down the track.


Rory, me, and a bottle of whiskey, sorting Irish rugby

It might seem like an afterthought but here’s a point worth making. Amid all the wailing about an irreversible power shift towards French and English club rugby, ponder this: the amount of opportunities for pool points Munster (and Leinster, to a lesser extent) left after them this campaign.

It’s no exaggeration to say Munster — if they were performing at 90% of their potential — could have five wins at this juncture. They lost a soft game away to Leicester and to Stade — don’t say those games weren’t winnable —and delivered a tepid at best performance in losing at home to the Tigers. There has to be lessons learned from that.

Even with three losing bonus points from those defeats, Munster could have 18 points after this weekend which would open the door to qualification.

Even the Parisiens at Racing 92 were a bit pleased Munster rebounded last Saturday against Stade in Thomond Park— and not for spite. There was relief that the world is still round and that Munster still have a bit of a dog’s bite in them.

There’s an acceptance, yes, that it isn’t the Munster of old, but there are core values that come with playing for the province that are non-negotiable and were absent the first day against Stade. Thankfully there’s a bit of life yet.

You have to fight for everything. When you are on the ropes, you have to find hope from somewhere. The key trait of the Munster teams in the past was the uncanny ability to get something out of a game, no matter how much we were on the ropes. That’s the kind of things, a losing bonus point, a small victory from your day’s work. You banked it and move onto the next week with diminished pride — but at least, it’s some kind of pride.


Rory, me, and a bottle of whiskey, sorting Irish rugby

If I thought Chris Henry’s absence from the provisional Six Nations squad for Ireland was anything more than lack of match preparedness, I’d be very shocked. That would be a major omission. I haven’t seen Stuart McCloskey in the flesh so I’m not ready to comment on how good he can be. Wales and France will come too soon for him. Henshaw and Payne will fill the centre jerseys against Wales, flanked by two from three — Andrew Trimble, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls.

Marty Moore had a picture painted for him this week by Joe Schmidt. The Irish coach might just have rendered that agreement to go to Wasps as pretty meaningless. The tight-head is 24, Mike Ross is 36. Mike started at 30 and has over 50 caps. If Marty manages himself and sees bigger picture, there’s another 100 caps there for him. He might just stay where he is in Leinster. It’s a blow for Wasps, but what value would they place on a contract for a player who doesn’t really want to be there anyway? It’s an issue I will return to — because it’s going to become more common.

France have named a Six Nations squad without Mathieu Bastareaud. The ‘new’ coach Guy Noves says the French are taking their game in adirection that will be easy on the eye, that wil please the folk putting their hands in their pockets. They are evidently looking for distributors and second receivers but you ask any No 10 in the tournament, and they’ll be delighted Bastareaud is not there.There are fitter specimens for sure, but if you have a clever 10, you could get a lot out of him.

Remi Tales hasn’t made the squad either. Racing played him at 10 against the Scarlets last week, with Dan Carter moving to inside centre.

We needed to get Remi game time, and build his confidence. We knew Scarlets were going to try to play a high tempo game. If you have two 10s on the pitch, you can play the game with more width and the idea of playing Carter with Casey Laulala in the centre had a seductive feel to it because Dan can get his hands free in the tackle and Casey runs great lines. The former Munster man helped himself to three tries and gives us another card to play with for the future.


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